ALBUMS: Oh, the pity and the terra of it all

Orb

vs Terrarvm

(Island CID 8037)

Disembodied voices echo through the aural equivalent of one of those great London pea-soupers in old Sherlock Holmes films... waves lap at distant shores... Mr Spock attempts the Vulcan mind-meld... industrial machinery fizzes and hisses while, trapped in a submersible, a self-improvement tape improves itself: just another stop on the latest world tour, which judging by track titles like "Oxbow Lakes" and "Valley", would seem to be rather more earthbound than earlier space-rock voyages.

Not that you'd know so from listening to it, mind; refining further the strong German influence of its predecessor Pomme Fritz, vs Terrarvm shimmers in like Can's "Future Days" and retains the mood through successive changes of tempo and intention. The presiding image may be of earth, but the predominant feel is as liquid as usual, the countless cross-fades and echoes leaving little by way of terra firma on tracks like the shuddering "Plateau" and elastic "Occidental", the latter a rubber-dub outing with a big vacant space attached.

Only on "Oxbow Lakes" is anything like a normal instrumental approach employed, though the quizzical introductory piano figure is soon submerged in the accretions of shifting, melting sounds. Less experimental than Pomme Fritz, it's probably Alex Paterson's most consistent album so far, outstaying its welcome only on the 15 minutes-plus of the concluding "Slug Dub" (or "Slvg Dvb", as the faux-Latin typography has it).

Tindersticks

Tindersticks

(This Way Up 526 303-2)

Though not quite as arid as American miserabilists like Red House Painters, Tindersticks' second album finds them even more dedicated than before to the evocation of sadness. Being a character in a Tindersticks song must be as depressing a prospect as being the hero's best buddy in a Hollywood crime movie: you know you're condemned from the off, and the only variable is how long it takes, and how much you'll suffer beforehand.

In the case of the subject of "My Sister", that means being blinded at age five, paralysed at 20, and dead by 32. But believe me, she's the lucky one in this parade of star-crossed lovers and suicidal losers. In its entire 70 minutes, the only relief from the incessant, all-pervading gloom comes during the brief instrumental interludes - like the Morriconi-esque "Vertrauen II" and the one-minute organ overture "Singing" - when Stuart Staples's quavery baritone is not around to condemn the music to a death it doesn't deserve.

Staples has surely the smallest vocal range in rock music, as well as the most dismal timbre; but unlike that other morbid baritone Leonard Cohen, there's no irony or amusement sculpting his delivery, and no angry momentum driving the songs along. Staples simply languishes, emotionally overcast, in the often exquisite settings his fellow Tindersticks create.

Arranged and mixed with great subtlety, there's little that's obtrusive about the vibes and violins, organs and pianos, trumpets and brushed drums that make up Tindersticks: they're present more as discreet watercolour stains, lending these bleak landscapes such amorphous character as they possess.

But it's too one-dimensional a world to correspond to anything like real life. Indeed, given the obvious range and diversity of Tindersticks' abilities, the obsessive singularity of mood and purpose is itself, well, pretty depressing. Doubtless they'd be delighted.

Duran Duran

Thank You

(Parlophone CDDDB 36)

Like Annie Lennox's Medusa, this is an album of cover versions of some of the artist's favourite songs. There the similarity ends: for where Lennox has re-imagined the material into new but emotionally congruent pieces which in some cases improve on the originals, Duran Duran don't seem to have had much of a clue why they were bothering in the first place.

Aside from the obvious old glam-rock chestnuts on which they were reared ("Success", "Perfect Day"), Thank You is stuffed with ill-considered renderings of ill-chosen material: "Lay Lady Lay" is glutinous rather than warm, "Ball of Confusion" simply laughable, while "I Wanna Take You Higher" quite clearly doesn't, in either of its two versions. Most hilariously, their cover of Public Enemy's "911 Is a Joke" entails Simon Le Bon complaining, in a sub-Jagger white whine, that the emergency services respond deliberately slowly when he calls because he's a black man. It's not impossible to cover Public Enemy, as Tricky's version of "Black Steel" attests, but to skate blithely over the racial element in their work like this is a bit like ignoring the Jewish element in the Talmud.

2 PAC

Me Against the World

(Atlantic / Interscope

6544-92399-2)

The latest rap star to wind up in jail, Tupac Shakur shows no sign, on his new album, of having learned that much from his experiences. The opening track, for instance, is a collage of sampled news reports which, with typical rap bravado, glorifies his own shooting and same-day self-discharge from hospital, but oddly avoids mention of the sexual assault charges on which he has been sentenced to between one and four years. Doubtless he considers the matter entirely the fault of the woman involved - in which case, he's rather closer to the attitudes of one group of old white males than he realises.

"If I Die 2 Nite" and the title-track continue the shamelessly pathetic macho spectacle, 2Pac painted into a corner by his own paranoid, dystopian rhetoric. His worldview is perhaps best summed up in the title "F*** the World", which at least spreads his endlessly self-exculpatory bile around with a sort of equal-rights antipathy; for despite his admission that "My every move is a calculated step / To bring me closer to an early death", blame is generally confined to the police, along with "Tramp-ass bitches" and the white devils of black demonology.

Of course, it's not these groups that are directly responsible for so many of his homies "relocating to the cemetery", but then logic, that most devastating of white European inventions, was long since excluded from discussion of these matters.

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